Farewell to Wilf of the rink

Mike Rowbottom watches the short-track hopefuls go through their impressive paces
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When Wilf O'Reilly finally retires from speed skating - and he is making noises about doing it this year - Britain will be able to fill the gap with young men of proven ability. But will it ever find anyone as loveable?

For a man who had just failed to win the national speed skating title, O'Reilly was looking absurdly chirpy at the Guildford Spectrum rink on Saturday. Then again, at 31, he already had eight championship wins to his credit, not to mention his Olympic gold medal from 1988 and world title in 1991. He has been there, seen it, done it - with an irrepressible grin on his face.

Genial by nature and blessed with gypsy good looks, O'Reilly is David Essex on ice. He attracted glances of unalloyed affection from the women officials. After the presentations, an old lady sought him out. "Well done, Wilf," she said, giving his arm a squeeze.

The regard in which he is held takes in the traumatic accident which changed his life shortly before the 1994 Olympics, when his girlfriend Monique Velzeboer, the Dutch No1 speed skater, was left paralysed after breaking her neck in a fall.

O'Reilly, whose subsequent Olympic performance was a predictable debacle, has had his perspective on life profoundly altered.

"The last two years have been like a new experience for me," he said. "Monique is still in a wheelchair, but she's getting about now. She has got her own car, and we've just come back from holiday in Tenerife. I don't think you ever accept the situation but you learn to live with it. You come to terms with things."

The lure of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano is only faint for O'Reilly, who lives with Velzeboer in the Netherlands. "If anything kept me in the sport, that would. But this has got every chance of being my last year," he said.

For Nicky Gooch, however, Japan presents a realistic opportunity to improve on the bronze medal he won at the 1994 Olympics.

In terms of performance, O'Reilly has already been overtaken by this 22-year-old with the face of a china doll and the body of a rugby league forward. On his home rink, Gooch reclaimed his overall title from fellow 22-year-old Matthew Jasper after recovering from a potentially calamitous fall in the 1,000-metres final.

"Just to excite the crowd, wasn't it?" he joked afterwards. His performance was all the more commendable for the fact that he returned to the ice only two weeks before Christmas after cutting his arm badly in a fall while competing in Canada.

Rolling up his sleeve, he revealed a scar that looked as if it had been inflicted by a shark. "Another skater caught me with his blade," he said. "I don't even want to know how many stitches it needed."

Debbie Palmer, a 22-year-old from Swindon, indicated that she is ready to win further medals at the European Championships in two weeks' time in winning her sixth consecutive national title. In doing so she improved her national 1,500m record by seven seconds to 2min 30sec, only two seconds off the world record.

"It's taken me six years to reach this point," she said. "I'm definitely aiming for the top three at the Europeans, and if everything goes according to plan, gold."

And the performance of 16-year-old Sarah Lindsay, who finished second, gave the promise of international medals further in the future.

The youngest competitor at the weekend's national championships, which included several age groups, was Thomas Pease, from Solihull - seven years old, and already equipped with the ideal strategy to cope with falling over. "You have to get up quickly," he said.

Wilf O'Reilly would no doubt agree with him on that point.